Mercenaries reported killed in Yemen

Satellite image of the Colombian training camp in the UAE

Seven mercenaries – six Colombians and their Australian commander – are reported to have been killed fighting near Taiz in central Yemen. According to the local Saba News agency:

"The army and popular committees repulsed an attempt of the mercenaries of the Saudi-led coalition to advance toward al-Amri area in Dhubab district and killed and wounded many of them, including six Colombian soldiers and their commander Philip Steetman, an Australian national, a military official in Taiz said."

In a subsequent updated report Saba News raised the total number of "foreigners" killed in Taiz province to 14. Along with the six Colombians there were fighters of eight other nationalities, including two Britons and a Frenchman as well as the previously-mentioned Australian, it said. So far only the Australian has been named.

Saba News, run by Houthi/Saleh supporters, is one of two rival "government" news agencies with similar-looking websites. The other one, Saba New (without the "s"), supports the Hadi/Saudi/Emirati side in the current conflict. 

The report from Saba News continues:

"The Colombian soldiers came to the country with the American Blackwater forces, which belong to the Saudi-led coalition forces invading Yemen ..." 

This is partly true, though Saba News has got the facts rather muddled. The mercenaries are believed to be part of a "foreign legion" which the UAE began assembling in 2011 – long before the Yemen war – with assistance from Erik Prince, an American billionaire who was formerly head of Blackwater, the controversial security firm. 

The force, which answers to Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (crown prince of Abu Dhabi) rather than the UAE military, was put together in great secrecy and originally seems to have been intended mainly as a response to the Arab Spring uprisings.

(For more about the background to this, see previous blog post.)

According to a New York Times investigation in 2011, Colombians were recruited "to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts ... Such troops could be deployed if the Emirates faced unrest in their crowded labour camps or were challenged by pro-democracy protests".

However, it's misleading to describe these mercenaries as a Blackwater force. The contractor providing them to the UAE is (or at least was) a company called Reflex Responses which is also known as R2. In 2011 the New York Times described R2 as "Mr Prince’s new company" and said:

"Knowing that his ventures are magnets for controversy, Mr Prince has masked his involvement with the mercenary battalion. His name is not included on contracts and most other corporate documents, and company insiders have at times tried to hide his identity by referring to him by the code name 'Kingfish'." 

The paper later published a "correction" quoting the head of R2 as saying that Prince did not "run or own" it. 

The first group of Colombian mercenaries are said to have arrived in Yemen in October. The Colombian newspaper El Tiempo 
reported that just under 100 of them took up "frontline positions" in Aden, adding that their number might eventually be expanded to 800. 

The Colombia Reports website said they would operate "under the service" of the Emirati armed forces but wear Saudi uniforms. It added that in return for a three-month tour of duty in Yemen they were being paid a bonus of $1,000 a week on top of their salaries and those who survived would be granted instant Emirati citizenship. 

The Colombians and the Australian are probably not the first mercenaries to be killed in Yemen. Last September Mohammad Ali Shabani, a researcher at SOAS in London, uncovered discrepancies between the number of reported deaths among troops fighting on behalf of the UAE and the number of reported funerals.

UAE citizens who die fighting in Yemen are normally portrayed in the Emirati media as martyrs and given a hero's funeral. However, Shabani noticed that of the 45 "Emirati" soldiers killed at that stage, only 35 had been named and the funerals of only 32 had been reported. "It thus remains unclear who the remaining killed soldiers are and where they have been buried," he wrote. 

Britons fighting in Yemen?

Although the deaths of the two Britons are yet to be confirmed, this raises the question of how many others might be involved in the conflict there.

Any British citizens fighting in Yemen could be liable to prosecution under UK law. Last year the head of counter-terrorism for the Crown Prosecution Service warned:

"Potentially it’s an offence to go out and get involved in a conflict, however loathsome you think the people on the other side are.

"People have got views about all sorts of conflicts and all sorts of places, but our government chooses to have legislation which prevents people from joining in whichever conflict they have views about. We will apply the law robustly."

Britons could be prosecuted under the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870 which made it illegal to join foreign forces fighting any other foreign state which is not at war with Britain. However, this has proved difficult to enforce in the past.

More likely, they could be prosecuted under section five of the 2006 Terrorism Act of 2006 which says that anyone convicted of fighting abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive" faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 9 December 2015